Monday, April 21, 2008

Riding the wind

I fell off Bar again and have been struggling over the last few days with how I'm feeling about all this. It's certainly better today than it was last Wednesday night, though it's been an interesting philosophical journey for me so far.

I love that crazy horse, but I've been trying too hard to control him in ways that don't work well with his personality, causing frustration and outbursts on his part and more fear and attempts at control on my part. Ugly spiral. In this case, the outburst was him launching himself like we were leaving the starting gate, only he left something behind - me.

After our successful trail ride, I was determined to relax more and not hang on his head so much. I started out okay, but he was very fresh after two days off and really wanted to run. I tried to work him through it from a pretending-to-be-relaxed-but-really-utterly-fearful mindset, which didn't work at all. He spooked and off I came, flying backwards, suddenly suspended in thin air like a cartoon character. I do have to say that if that was even half of his starting gate speed, it's no wonder he won races. Now, had I been paying attention to him and not had my head on some other thing - not a good plan, by the way - I might have had enough wherewithal to stay on. Peter's comment was that I had probably relaxed just a little too much. Hard balance, that one.

I was really disappointed in myself, totally unsure how I was going to deal with this horse without changing my personality or his. It's more than his need to run or "have a job" as some folks say. It's also crucial to my growth as a rider and his growth as my horse to trust each other, and part of the way that happens is to have fun together. When I try to hold him back, hold him in, turn it into a constant battle because I'm afraid - even if I have reason to be - we're not having fun anymore, we're not learning, leaving stagnation as the very best thing we can hope for.

That's not what I want and I wasn't sure what I was going to do about it. I watched both Steve and Katie let Bar run - within limits - and I saw him respond to them and work with them in ways he and I had lost along the way.

At Steve's suggestion, I rode Lena for two days to try and get some of my confidence back and it did help a lot. Friday, even though it was windy and she was a little spooky, I managed to feel like I was moving with her, pushing myself just a little, still able to stay (mostly) relaxed. Saturday, though, Katie was riding Bar and came up on our inside just for fun, and I felt Lena gather up to take off and race them. I got scared, snapped at Katie, who couldn't possibly have realized where my head and gut were at that moment, and reined Lena in. Katie backed off and she and Steve took Bar to have a bath, leaving me alone in the arena to push myself past my comfort zone and prove to myself I could handle it. I'd like to say that didn't add to the pile of guilt and sadness in my heart, but you all know it did.

So by the time my Sunday lesson rolled around, I had myself in quite a state. Guilty, afraid, upset -- all things that would not translate well to a horse still so sensitive to my emotions he couldn't help but sense how on-edge I was and respond in his larger and more dramatic way.

I actually sat and talked to both horses while I waited for them to finish their grain. Bar nuzzled and rubbed his big head on my knee and Lena groomed my arm and hair with her gentle and flexible lips, almost like she was trying her best to get me to relax and have a little faith.

It's not that I want to let either horse careen recklessly around the arena, either. It's that in order to improve them and improve my own riding, I have to be able to handle that possibility without going into a gibbering, tight-handed, panic because that won't work. They will both throw goofiness and power at me and I need to be able to ride it out and get them refocused so none of us gets hurt. I AM a good enough rider to handle both of them - when I'm not anticipating so much I over-react, when I can relax and experience them as horses I actually really enjoy riding. I forgot that last part for awhile and it caught up to me in a big way.

Besides, it's that very energy that makes them both so fun to ride, makes you feel like you are part of something magical and powerful.

So I went down for my lesson and - much to my surprise - it went really well. We did try a running martingale (I think) on him, which seemed to help with his head position, though it wasn't set to be too restrictive and he could have been responding more to day 3 of good workouts, too. We did a lot of long trotting, working on my hand position and posting - and "staying supple and alert" to use Peter's preference to "relaxed." With Bar, as with any horse, really, supple and alert is probably better.

Then Peter told me to take Bar up into a canter and I took a deep breath and did it. Okay, actually I held my breath while I asked Bar for a canter and was not particularly successful until I let the breath out and pushed him forward into hands that weren't trying to hold him back for a change.

And I did it.

I kept him at a nice and steady canter - apparently he has a big English canter, not a more sedate Western lope - and slowed him down easily when he would try to speed up in the straight-away, even brought him back down to a slow (for him) trot.

Steve says I was grinning, even.

And now I'm away from home, working our huge Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, really wishing I could get back on him and try again sooner than Saturday. The thing with horses, as I continually relearn, is that there is always a chance to go back and do it better. Of course, just like everything else, some days run a little smoother than others.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Horses meet dog

My daughter Katie's boyfriend has a fine young dog named Cali and she got to come to the barn with us on Saturday. We had tried this once before, but Cali barked and stepped in front of me when a horse started towards me, so had been returned to the car to wait for us to finish tending the horses that day. I know she was being protective, but there are lessons dogs need when they come around horses. Like not lunging at them or barking, for example.

She's a quick study, apparently. On Saturday, she did much better and our two horses took her in stride without any trouble. Bar, in fact, got his face cleaned quite nicely while I was off saddling Lena Rey.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


This is picture of Cocomo and Odie practicing pilates before their ride at the clinic! It's the secret to their success in the show ring!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lena and Doc in Paint Horse Journal

I sent this photo into Paint Horse Journal a few months ago, and they put it in the March issue! (It's their Photo Finish feature where readers can send in pictures of their Paint horses.)

I was pretty excited, though Lena and Doc were not at all surprised by their new-found fame. Steve would have been happier had it been me in the picture and not him. Oh, well.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Trail riding success!

We took Lena and Bar out today, for the first time since the beach incident, and despite my apprehension before-hand, it all went really well.

And, yes, there was a lot of apprehension before-hand, folks. I kept telling myself to relax and take things as they happened, but talk - as they say - is cheap. Finally, I resorted to a mantra of "Just let him be a horse" and that seemed to help a little.

Odd as it may sound, what actually helped even more was the minor difficulties we had loading them both in the trailer. We got Lena loaded, though there was some additional coaxing needed because she didn't want to be the first horse in. Bar actually seemed to load very easily, and I fastened the tie-down to his halter - not noticing that his back legs were still outside the trailer. He tried to back out, pulling hard on the tie-down, and I felt my panic level rise along with his when I couldn't get the clasp to release.

Then I looked him in the eye, reached out and stroked his cheek, and in that instant, the two of us silently agreed that he would trust me to get him out of this and I would trust him not to go berserk. Instantly, things were calmer. I started breathing again and he stopped pulling back, even coming forward enough for me to unlatch the tie from his halter. We backed out, circled, and he got right back in - all the way this time - and we were off.

Woo hoo!

They were very quiet on the way to our destination - a small park with a nice loop around a lake. It has a trail that is wide enough to circle a horse if the need arises, and still offers normal distractions like bike riders, children, and dogs - all good things for horses to learn to deal with.

I kept a really loose rein on Bar and did my best to let him just be a horse and explore his surroundings. He reminded me a lot of Lena when we first started taking her out with Doc - Bar would be in front, swinging along in his long-legged walk, until he came to something he wasn't sure about. Then he'd let Lena go past him and he'd follow that spotty rear end until he felt a little safer, then take the lead again. He was relaxed and curious most of the ride, really paying attention to footing and the surfaces we were walking on. He did seem to think rocks and gravel on the trail - usually in drainage areas - were a little weird, though.

He only really balked one time, crossing a tiny stream. Lena went through it, though with much snorting and dainty side-steps; Bar was torn between wanting to back the other way and wanting to follow Lena. I remembered some advice we got from Steve Ybarra during our mule/trail training and got off to lead Bar through the dribble of water. He only hesitated for a moment, then followed me through slowly and politely, without rushing or getting pushy.

Steve wants me to take credit for my own ability to finally relax and be calm with Bar, to let go and trust him and not over-correct or under-estimate this very sensitive and intelligent brown horse. Peter told Steve that more encouragement will go further with Bar than most anything else, and yesterday's outing seems to back that up pretty decisively.

Not to mention that a trail ride is a lot more fun than circles in the arena any day.

Here he is at the end of the ride, relaxed and standing quietly with Lena by the trailer. He kept looking out over the nearby vineyards, like he was wondering just how far he could go out towards that horizon.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Trot/Halt Transitions

This video clip from the clinic shows us working on trot/half transitions. By the end of the clip, you can see how he's clearly "on my aids".

Monday, April 07, 2008

Too Much Fun

Willoughby and I had too much fun at our horse clinic with Dennis Callin this past weekend. These pictures were taken at the cocktail party (held inside the barn - my type of party) where Willoughby was the life of the party! He is quite the social butterfly!
The lessons were great. We were really pushed to the next level and I realized that I could start asking more of Willoughby - without him resisting or feeling unprepared. We worked on extensions and collections in the trot and canter, shoulder in, counter canter, and transitions. My aids became sharper and more clear and my riding became more precise. I'll upload a video of the ride shortly. I also learned a lot from watching other people's rides - for instance, when you're extending in the trot or canter, extend for 5-6 strides and then count 3-2-1 when asking your horse to come back or to collect. This gives you three strides to collect, instead of letting it drag on for the entire long side of the arena!
Willoughby is now enjoying a couple of days off but I can't wait to get back in the saddle and practice everything I just learned!

What scares your horse

I found this question on The Equus Ink from another blog, Pony Tail Club.

As you may know, with my two horses, it can be different things on different days.

Lena thinks tarps and jackets are horribly sinister things. Bar thinks jackets are things that have treats in them, even when they are hanging on a fence, and was unconcerned enough with a flapping tarp to stomp on it on his way to some grass.

Lena hates things that are yellow - will skirt spray painted diamonds on pavement very delicately, as a matter of fact.

Bar spooked at crows flying over the arena one afternoon, but hasn't been bothered by birds since then. Lena, who has been known to chase birds, spooked at one just the other day. Short spook, but a spook nonetheless.

Bar once spooked in the indoor arena at shadows through the inside door and the sound of Peter's voice up in the hay pile next door. (He's actually not particularly fond of the way the indoor arena echoes in any case.)

Lena spooked at horses on the bike path and tore around the arena like her tail was on fire.

They have both spooked at the sun shining off a giant puddle in the outdoor arena.

Neither of them seem particularly bothered by dogs or bicycles in general, but on some days, bikes will cause much consternation for reasons and star alignments I cannot fathom. Lena has had one experience with the pod bicycle that runs silently along our bike path here and while she didn't bolt, it was pretty clear she thought it was a freak of nature. I did want to point out to the guy that riding something predator height and coming up behind a horse with no warning and almost completely silently was a good way to end up with a big, fat hole in his fiberglass pod.

Sometimes I know it's coming, or can at least sense what might set them off, and other times I'm just glad I'm still in the saddle when they are done.

I would actually hope that their instincts would cut in if a lion crossed our path, then hope I had the wherewithal to hang on tight as we got the heck out of there. I do think that a horse and rider would be an awfully large target, at least for a mountain lion, though perhaps not for an African lion. Yowza.

Horse stretching on a sunny afternoon

I took some time off today because my daughter (also a Katie) is out of school for spring break. She still likes to hang out with me, which for a parent is a pretty special occurrence, especially with a teenager. We had originally planned to ride - she having been inspired by Seabiscuit and my description of the lesson with Peter - but we got rolling too late so didn't end up with enough time.

We did, however, have time to do some flexibility exercises with Lena and Bar. I've been doing carrot stretches with Lena for at least a year and a half and it's been really good for her.

Bar looked at me like I had lost my mind the first time I tried to get him to reach around to his hip for a carrot, but he's figured it out now. He watches Lena and me in the mornings, waiting for his turn. He's not quite as flexible as she is, yet, but he's already improved immensely.

You have to be a little careful with him because he will try to do a quick reach and snatch to get the carrot which not only isn't the nice easy gentle stretch I'm going for, it's also risky for fingers. Lena always grabs with her lips, but we're still working on Bar in that particular area of skill. Though, again, he's much better with his mouth than when we first got him.

Bar likes the "bow" stretch much better than the side to side stretches and, particularly in the picture of Lena, you can see that nice top-line stretch we're going for. At first, Bar would just put his nose to the ground, but he's started coming underneath his chest a little more, now, too.

Lena also made a try for my roast beef sandwich. I told her she wasn't that kind of a cow horse. Bar helped me clean his pen, even going so far as to lift the handle of the cart in his teeth. I asked him to please not dump the full cart as I really didn't feel like scooping twice.

After all the stretching - and after we had depleted a good many carrots - Katie plopped herself in between their pens and fed them blades of grass. Not sure who was more content, her or the horses, actually. It was a wonderful thing to hear her laugh and watch her interact in her own way with each of them.

So no riding, but a pretty calm and relaxing afternoon for all of us that was probably almost as good.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Movie sap

I finally watched the movie Seabiscuit and (naturally) cried my eyes out several times during the movie.

I wondered out loud to Steve if Bar missed that life, missed racing, missed the excitement. Steve didn't think so, and he's probably right. But I was still inspired by the story of an underdog, a horse nobody understood or believed in becoming the hope of a whole generation of people.

Not to mention the fact that I loved the horse racing footage, the sound of those hooves thundering down the track, horses running full out - flying, really - and the story of people who really understood a horse. Just one horse in this case, but what a horse.

I hope I can make that kind of difference in Bar's life; I know he has already made that much difference in mine.

Learning curve

This was a challenging week in our horse world. Not entirely without flashes of hope - though on some occasions, it was merely the hope that one could stay in the saddle long enough to turn the ride around into something more positive than a rodeo session.

On Tuesday, I got to the barn after Steve - as usual - and saw a plume of dust rising from the outdoor arena. As I walked down the alley, I saw Steve and Lena flying - oh, yes, I mean flying - around the corner and one of our barn mates off her horse trying to blend into the rails of the arena and stay out of the way. I had apparently missed Steve running that bratty spotty horse into the fence to stop her. She had spooked because there were two women walking (leading, really) two horses along the bike trail and for whatever reason, Lena thought that was just too wacky for her to deal with. Or, more likely, she's in season and had herself all in a twist for no other reason than she was in the mood to have herself in a twist.

I decided not to ride that night, but did spend some time grooming Bar and talking to him, which he seemed to enjoy.

The next night, I did ride and Bar was not too terribly bad, but not too terribly good, either. He didn't really want to trot in circles, he wanted to eat and since it was feeding time, I can understand his point of view. I didn't give in to his point of view, but it was not the easiest ride we'd ever had.

Thursday night, he was at his worst. At the time, I wasn't really sure why, though I wondered if it was the new saddle pad combination I was trying, or maybe the neoprene cinch wearing away at his chest and sides. However, after my lesson today, I don't think so. (Though he did seem to be more comfortable in the mohair cinch we bought to replace the neoprene.)

When I say worst, I mean worst for me so far. He was fine letting me get on, calm at the walk, and went over the poles with no problems. The minute I asked him to trot, however, he tossed his head, danced sideways, bucked, backed up - basically found any way he could to not do what I was asking him to do. I did finally get him to trot circles for me in both directions, but it was all I could do to not scream in total frustration. I did manage to stay on throughout all his antics, which seemed to take him a little bit by surprise.

Sometimes it feels like we take two steps forward and seven steps back. By the time I got home Thursday, I was pretty disheartened and frustrated. After Steve rode Bar on Friday, he understood why and told Bar he was lucky I hadn't strangled him.

But then I rode Lena Friday afternoon and all of the things I've learned riding Bar, combined with having more confidence in Lena, gave us a really ride together. She was relaxed, I was relaxed, comfortable in the saddle, fluid through my hips and pelvis. She did try one minor spook, but all I did was check her with the (loose) reins and she focused her attention back to the task at hand.

So I thought about that some, about how my confidence level in Lena makes so much of a difference, and vowed to try to trust Bar a little more. I'm always a little on edge with him, waiting for his next antic, his next explosion. With her, I was in a better place with both my body and my mind, so all I had to do was let her know I was indeed paying attention - without panicking - and we could stay on track with our ride.

All that was before today's lesson, which reinforced all of that, plus gave me a few more tricks to use when he starts acting up and being stubborn. One of the things Peter said was, "Pretend to trust him, but still be alert and ready for him." It sounds contradictory, but it's not really. Part of my struggle with Bar is that I anticipate him blowing up, tense up, and feed into the blow up. I did the exact opposite with Lena and it stopped almost before it started.

In complete contrast, my lesson today was made more interesting by chainsaws and a wood chipper running on the bike trail somewhere, plus the mules next door running back and forth frantically. I knew Bar was paying attention to them, but during one of Bar's dances, Peter pointed out that Bar was less bothered by the noise of the chipper than I was; that I had tensed up in anticipation of Bar acting up, which led - naturally - to Bar acting up.

I need to channel some of the confidence I feel with Lena into my riding with Bar, as hard as that may be, because I've felt it make a difference. Not only with Lena, but when I'm riding him as well.

There are other things as well, like catching him and distracting him from acting up; not holding his head too tight and giving him an excuse to rear; keeping him moving forward and not letting him get away with refusal. (Which, by the way, is a new tactic for him.) Bar? Not go forward? Something must be wrong with him physically! No, actually, I think he just figured out that bolting forward didn't get him his way, so this was a new trick. Too bad for Bar, Peter knows that trick and taught me how to make it less profitable for Bar to balk than to continue moving forward. Circle, kick with the inside leg, let that outside rein go so I'm not somehow inadvertently (or subconsciously) telling him to stop, and once I get that forward motion, straighten him out and keep going.

So as frustrating as this week has been for me in some ways, I have learned a tremendous amount. Applying it may be tricky, but the balance between the two horses - and my own reaction to each of them - has opened a really important window for me, one that will no doubt continue to improve my riding if I allow myself to absorb the light that has come through it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Horse listening

This may sound a little, oh, ethereal, but I'm listening to horses more. Talking to them more, too.

Now, I've always talked a lot to Lena and Bar; I even sing to them while riding sometimes. They are paying attention and I do try to stay on key, and it even improves the ride 9 times out of 10.

On Sunday, getting ready for my lesson, Bar was particularly stressed out. Granted, I am usually a little nervous before my lesson - no, I don't really know why - and he does pick up on that, but he was really having a hard time Sunday. Maybe it was because Steve didn't come with me and hadn't gotten Lena saddled up before-hand; maybe it was because it was breezy; maybe it was some weird horse dynamic I missed. Whatever it was, he was acting more agitated than I could see reason for.

I put him in the cross-ties, which he's gotten pretty comfortable with, and he started tossing his head, up and down, side to side, pulling against the restraints. This is way out of line from his normal behavior, which often includes shifting his rear end from side to side whenever I disappear into the tack room but settles out when I emerge with brushes.

I tried breathing with him, assuming my nervousness about the lesson was feeding his behavior - at least in part - and telling him, yes, I was nervous but I am always nervous and it wasn't anything to worry about. I hit some of the calming points I learned in my acupressure and massage class, too, but he could not relax and kept looking out the barn door towards Lena.

So I stopped for a second and just listened to him. And then I looked at him and asked him if he thought I was getting ready to take him away, get rid of him. He stopped tossing his head and looked at me. I hugged that big brown horse and told him he was stuck with me and we were just having a lesson, then went to get his saddle. Bar stood still after that and I got him saddled and led him down to the arena.

He did act up once we got in the arena and saw Bill and CD doing some reining spins, but his attitude was normal for who he is and what his life has been. I would think the only reasons racehorses spin around are not good ones. And with only minor disagreements, we got through our lesson and learned a lot in the process.

I know it sounds crazy that I think he understands me on some level, and I'm sure you could attribute his behavior to him just figuring something out in his own head and/or giving in.

But I saw the look in his eye, felt his relief in every pore of my body, saw the tension bleed out of him.

Sometimes, he makes me think of a foster kid, a kid who will try everything he knows to test you so you either send him back or you forge more love in your relationship. In both cases, it's a mixture of love and discipline.

He has to trust us, but we must prove ourselves worthy of his trust. We are getting there, and I'm loving (most) every minute of it.

How soon they forget

I just had a lesson on Sunday and it went really well. Bar cooperated and I learned a few new tricks with him.

Peter had me follow Bar's head up with my hands, so the higher his head went, the higher my hands went -- all the while, I was working the bit back and forth, left hand to right hand, getting him to give me his face. On Sunday, during the lesson, Peter warned me that it might irritate Bar.

On Sunday, it didn't. On Sunday, even though it was a constant dance between us, he did give me his nose more often than not; he did give me a slower trot and a nice collected frame.

Tonight, however, perhaps because Bar could hear feeding time happening, it did irritate him. There was extreme head-tossing, backing up, even some mild rearing as we argued about exactly where his head needed to be and -- fundamentally -- who was in control.

I did prevail and got a beautiful head set out of him, though we never made it above a fast trot.

It's not really about winning, though. It's really about getting him to relax and carry himself in a way that's better for his body. (And mine, but that's a side issue as far as I'm concerned.) Head up and back hollow are not good for him, and I know he can feel the difference. I'm constantly working to be sure to release the pressure on his mouth when he finally gets himself where he needs to be, give him that reward for doing what I ask. He does get it, and he does respond -- sometimes it's just faster than it was tonight.

Photo Shoot

Here are some stunning pictures of Huckleberry Finn at the lake.
He's so handsome, but I'm partial!